Recently the head of the US Indo-Pacific Command spoke in Sydney. He criticised China’s behaviour in very strong terms, but in talking about the United States’ role and attitudes he described a set of policies that no longer exist.
On 13th February Admiral Philip Davidson, head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, spoke in Sydney at the Lowy Institute, in the course of an Australian visit which included meetings with the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Defence Minister. In his address he criticised China for “pernicious” and “malign” behaviour. He spoke in quite extreme terms, referring frequently not to the Chinese Government but to “the Communist Party of China”. According to the “Sydney Morning Herald” of 14th February he said that “through excessive territorial claims, debt-trap diplomacy, violations of international agreements, theft of intellectual property, military intimidation and outright corruption, the Communist Party of China seeks to control the flow of trade, finance, communications, politics and the way of life throughout the Indo-Pacific”.
He said that “as the Communist Party of China’s malign influence expands globally I want to be clear that the alliance between the US and Australia will be even more critical”. This, he said, was because of the importance the US placed on its network of alliance relationships, particularly in the Pacific; on the “rules-based international order”; and on free and fair international trade.
These are three concepts with which it is very hard to quarrel, but what is the reality? In regard to alliances, President Trump’s finding fault with the United States’ most important alliance, NATO, is notorious. In the Pacific, the US is at present trying to bully South Korea and Japan, two of its closest allies, into paying up to four times their present financial contributions to the upkeep of US forces in their countries, even though knowledgeable commentators say that, for example, it is already cheaper for the US to maintain its forces in Korea than it would be to maintain an equivalent force in the US itself.
As to the “rules-based international order”, in an interview published in the “Sydney Morning Herald” of 17th January Joe Hockey, retiring as Australian Ambassador to the US, and reported as having developed a close relationship with president Trump and his Administration, said that “Australia ha(s) to prepare for a world in which global forums such as the World Trade Organisation and the UN play increasingly marginal roles. ‘The US has basically torn up the whole multinational framework. Relationships are overwhelmingly bilateral not multilateral. And I don’t think this is exclusive to the Republicans’”.
In regard to world trade and the World Trade Organisation, it was recently reported (“Sydney Morning Herald”, 26th January) that the EU, China, Australia and 14 other countries are forming a voluntary trade disputes settlement mechanism. This is a response to the fact that the US has made the Organisation’s formal dispute settlement mechanism inoperable by refusing to agree to any nominations to its panel to adjudicate disputes and appeals. As a result the panel has either one or no members, as against a statutory minimum of three to hear any case.
So in the light of what the US is actually doing the contrast between the US and China drawn by Admiral Davidson is clearly an unreal one. In the Q and A which followed his address he spoke moderately, for example diplomatically declining various opportunities offered to criticise our Navy’s procurement program—and more than once describing the US and Australia as each other’s closest friend. But the picture his address presented of China was unusually harsh, particularly for someone speaking in a third country, and its picture of US policies and attitudes was frankly out-dated and not representative of present realities—-a description of a past era. It’s to be hoped that our Ministers with whom the Admiral spoke took what he said with a grain of salt.
Geoff Miller is a former Australian diplomat and government official.